How Blues have turned their roller-coaster season around
We’re at the point of the season where we can no longer hide behind small sample sizes, so it’s evident the St. Louis Blues are taking us all on a rollercoaster ride.
St. Louis has been the most erratic team in the league, simply incapable of having an average week. Through the opening weeks of the new campaign, the Blues dug themselves into quite a hole, then rocketed through the ground like a molten explosion on a seven-game winning streak.
As a result, the Blues are now in the record books, carrying the longest winning streak following a losing skid of eight or more games.
“It seems like one of those stats that you just call a stat and make it up because you are short of information on the day,” Blues defenseman Justin Faulk said to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford about the dubious record
How did we get here, and what accounts for the Blues’ good fortune? We have to start with Jordan Binnington.
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Binnington was awful at the beginning of the year and when we last checked in on the Blues, he was sporting a -3.8 goals saved above expected, the eighth-worst total in the NHL on Nov. 4. Maybe it just took a little while for Binnington to hit his stride — and we’ve seen this before, during the Blues’ 2019 title run — as he’s been one of the NHL’s best goalies over the past three weeks, allowing fewer than two goals in each of his past five starts, all contributing to the winning streak.
And while it usually takes all three components of a team to go on a seven-game heater, Binnington has been the team’s MVP as the Blues are still getting badly out-possessed with a minority share of the expected goals at 5-on-5. St. Louis has allowed the seventh-most shot attempts in the NHL at even strength, so there’s ample reason to believe that after his slow start, Binnington is the primary reason for the turnaround. Binnington’s 2.7 goals saved above expected is now the 15th-best total in the NHL, per MoneyPuck, steadily ascending through the charts.
Darren Pang, a former NHL goaltender who now works for the Blues’ broadcast, explained Binnington’s recent form to The Athletic on Nov. 21.
“Yeah, he’s sprinkling in superlatives is what he’s doing,” Pang said. “That’s what you get in the playoffs. You’re supposed to stop the ones that are stoppable and then you’ve got to sprinkle in maybe three unbelievable saves per game, that you have no business stopping. The six-on-three save that he made on (Cale) Makar, a lot of times that puck will go off your pad, up in the air, off your arm and in the net. It’s not, though.
“It’s like he’s seeing the puck off the stick in slow motion, and then he makes his move, and then he’s still able to track it down. That’s part of the concentration, it’s part of the confidence, it’s part of positioning, and it’s also part of being really good. You can say it all you want. If you’re not really good, you’re not going to make that save. He has sprinkled in some really special saves on top of the really good ones.”
Blues head coach Craig Berube attributed his team’s success to being more attentive with the puck.
“They dug in and started doing things the right way and getting that team going on the ice,” Berube said following Monday’s victory against the Anaheim Ducks. “That’s the biggest thing, for me. It really boils down to, again, how you play the game. Our puck battle has been extremely high in this run, even starting before that. Competitive, way more competitive,”
There may be something to that, but we also don’t really believe in compete level — the idea that a group of professionals simply want to win more than others doesn’t really hold water, so where can we reasonably look to account for the Blues’ surge?
Noel Acciari has performed better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected and though his counting stats won’t blow anyone away, he’s on pace for what will easily be the best season of his career. Acciari has contributed secondary offense with five goals and eight points in 18 games, but he’s been one of the best Blues forwards when it comes to driving play, ranking 41st in the NHL in individual expected goals at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.
We’re also singling out Acciari as the Blues don’t have a scorer among the NHL’s top 75 at the moment, with Robert Thomas and Brayden Schenn on the fringes, tied for the team lead with 16 points apiece.
It largely appears the Blues’ streak is solely relying upon Binnington’s renaissance: their four most-used line combinations all have Corsi shares below 46 percent and they are still being badly outplayed at 5-on-5. St. Louis is clicking at a shade above 22 percent on the power play, the 11th-best total in the league, which is good enough to suggest the Blues can continue to crush opponents with the man advantage, but not good enough to account for the disparity in possession, shot creation and shot suppression. Balanced scoring is all well and good, but it can dry up quickly in the absence of stars creating at a high level.
Binnington has turned his season around and at the risk of being overly simplistic, the Blues appear to be going as he does. Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2022-23 season, the Blues have been wildly unpredictable. Goaltending is a quality that is prone to variation, and the roller coaster stops and starts with Binnington’s up-and-down form.
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